Mainly based around John Flansburgh and John Linnell, alternative rock band They Might Be Giants first formed in 1982. They became popular on college stations and over time became one of the few college rock bands to become a household name along with R.E.M. and The Smiths. Since releasing their debut album in 1986, they’ve never gone more than three years without releasing an LP.
How much one enjoys They Might Be Giants typically depends on how much they’re willing to put up with their weirdness to get to the melodic center. Sadly, I’ve never thought of them as a great band as much as an OK one. They have many decent albums as well as many bad ones, but I’ve never been able to connect to even their best records the way others claim to.
“Nanobots,” the group’s new album, might change that. I don’t know if it’s their magnum opus (and I’m definitely not the person to ask about that), but I do know that I’ve never enjoyed one of their albums as much as this one. It features song after song of alt-rock gold, so much so that I’m able to look past its huge flaws (most of which have to do with the fact that it’s 25 songs in 45 minutes).
“Nanobots” is definitely flawed, but you wouldn’t know that if you only heard the absolutely perfect opening seven tracks. The first track, “You’re on Fire,” might be the most straight-up rock song the band has ever done, with a guitar riff that brings to mind dancey post-punk bands like Gang of Four and Killing Joke, and brilliant backup vocals (“Combustible head!”). The lyrics, meanwhile, are akin to Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire,” but with a sense of humor.
This is followed by the gorgeous title track and the anti-war “Black Ops” (written from the point of view of a drone operator contemplating his actions). “Lost My Mind” follows a man (possibly Linnell himself) as he reaches the age where he just doesn’t have the desire to think anymore, while “Circular Karate Chop” continues this year’s apparent obsessiveness with karate (seriously, between They Might Be Giants, Serengeti and Brad Paisley, musicians in 2013 just can’t get enough of that particular martial art).
Then, things get a little serious. “Call You Mom” is the first song I’ve ever heard that has made all of my friends respond with an eyebrow raise. It’s not hard to see why. This is a song that deals with psychological issues, childhood trauma and (most of all) the Oedipus complex. Its delivery is even more bizarre, making the listener unsure of whether they should laugh or shudder. That’s tremendous songwriting though and, lyrically, “Call You Mom” may be the album’s key moment (although, in a pop sense, it’s not).
The seventh and final track in this perfect opening is “Tesla,” which tells the story of Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla with affection and even manages to get a notable hook out of his name. This is followed by the 45 second long “Sleep,” the album’s first flawed song as well as the first example of the album’s biggest problem.
Don’t get me wrong. I have never loved Linnell and Flansburgh’s songwriting more than I do on “Nanobots.” But it’s still a 45 minute album with 25 tracks, which means there’s a lot more filler than necessary.
This filler mainly comes through in nine extremely short tracks (each under a minute, the shortest being only six seconds) that are this record’s equivalent to hip-hop skits. Still, has a rapper ever been audacious enough to include four skits in a row? Because there are four songs on “Nanobots,” each fewer than 20 seconds long, that play one after the other. This ruins the flow of the album to a huge degree, which is a shame considering that the album has enough material for a 35 minute classic.
But even with these speed bumps, many memorable moments do still follow the opening. “Stone Cold Coup d’Etat” might be the best song the band has ever recorded, and “9 Secret Steps” is cute.
The saxophone on “The Darlings of Lumberland” makes me wonder why saxophone isn’t more prevalent in today’s pop music, and “Icky” sounds like something that could have appeared on their debut (still their most accomplished album next to this one).
“Nanobots” has already become my personal favorite They Might Be Giants album. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s still one of the most phenomenal releases of the year so far and I must admit, this review was a little difficult to write. I kept re-listening to the key tracks.
Key tracks: “Stone Cold Coup d’Etat,” “You’re on Fire,” “Nanobots,” “Call You Mom,” “Tesla” and “Icky.”